Roger Williams and the Establishment of Religious Liberty

With the dawn of the Reformation, religious persecution did not come to any immediate end. Though most of the reformers ushered in a period of excellent theology, many of the cities in which these major reformers taught would maintain a state church, and as such make their religious convictions also legal dogmas which often would bring punishment and even death for those who did not fully subscribe to all the teachings held by the state leadership. Perhaps one of the most notable examples of this was in 17th century England which was dominated by the Anglican Church which is presided over by the King of England. The state led by the King, established more and more high church policies and less tolerance for any opposing views, view that were held by many in the Parliament. Irregardless of the punishments they might face, many Non-Conformists or Separatists (as they began to be called) such as Congregationalists (Independents) and Baptists knew that in order to be able to hold true to what they believed, there had to be an extension of freedom and toleration that covered religious beliefs and practices, and that such a freedom was worth fighting for. An army was formed by Parliament led not by the Lords, but by full-time soldiers. This army became known as the New Model Army, and it was led by Sir Thomas Fairfax, and perhaps one of the most notable men in all of English history, Oliver Cromwell.  The English Civil war was launched in 1642 and won by the Parliamentary army in September of 1651.

During the war, Cromwell knew the role which the desire for religious freedom played in the heart of many of his soldiers, and so he undermined much of what had been parliamentary procedure in the past as it pertained to military recruitment, and sought to recruit those who were motivated by the cause of religious freedom. And of all the advocates of it during this period, no other Separatist was more forthright in his call for religious liberty and tolerance than, Roger Williams (1603-1683). Williams had emigrated to forming colonies of America early in his life, but had returned to England in 1643 to obtain legal status for his new colony, that he would call Rhode Island. When he returned, Williams was horrified by what he saw as the Presbyterian intolerance in Parliament and the Westminster Assembly. In a response to such intolerance, Williams wrote his classic treatise The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience, which published in London a year later in 1644.

In this notable treatise, Williams provides a biblical defense of religious liberty for all. He writes:

In the multitude of counsellours there is safety ;” it is therefore humbly desired to be instructed in this point, viz. Whether persecution for cause of conscience be not against the doctrine of Jesus Christ, the King of kings. The scriptures and reasons are these.

1. BECAUSE Christ commandeth, that the tares and wheat, which some understand are those that walk in the truth, and those that walk in lies, should be let alone in the world, and not plucked up until the harvest, which is the end of the world. Matt. xiii. 30, 38, etc.

 2. The same commandeth, Matt. xv. 14, that they that are blind (as some interpret, led on in false religion, and are offended with him for teaching true religion) should be let alone, referring their punishment unto their falling into the ditch.

3. Again, Luke ix. 54, 55, he reproved his disciples who would have had fire come down from heaven and devour those Samaritans who would not receive Him, in these words “Ye know not of what Spirit ye are ; the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them”

4. Paul, the apostle of our Lord, teacheth, 2 Tim. ii. 24, that the servant of the Lord must not strive, but must be gentle toward all men; suffering the evil men, instructing them with meekness that are contrary minded, proving if God at any time will give them repentance, that they may ac knowledge the truth, and come to amendment out of that snare of the devil, etc.

5. According to these blessed commandments, the holy prophets foretold, that when the law of Moses concerning worship should cease, and Christ s kingdom be established, Isa. ii. 4 ; Mic. iv. 3, 4, They shall break their swords into mattocks, and their spears into scythes. And Isa. xi. 9, Then shall none hurt nor destroy in all the mountain of my holiness, etc.

And when he came, the same he taught and practised, as before. So did his disciples after him, for the weapons of his warfare are net carnal (saith the apostle), 2 Cor. x. 4. But he chargeth straitly, that his disciples should be so far from persecuting those that would not be of their religion, that when they were persecuted they should pray, Matt. v. 44 ; when they were cursed, they should bless, etc. And the reason seems to be, because they who now are tares, may hereafter become wheat; they who are now blind, may hereafter see; they that now resist him, may hereafter receive him; they that are now in the devil s snare, in adverseness to the truth, may hereafter come to repentance; they that are now blasphemers and persecutors, as Paul was, may in time become faithful as he; they that are now idolaters, as the Corinthians once were, 1 Cor. vi. 9, may hereafter become true worshippers as they ; they that are now no people of God, nor under mercy, as the saints sometimes were, 1 Pet. ii. 10, may hereafter become the people of God, and obtain mercy, as they. Some come not till the eleventh hour, Matt. xx. 6 : if those that come not till the last hour should be destroyed, because they come not at the first, then should they never come, but be prevented. All which promises are in all humility referred to your godly wise consideration.[1]

To many in Parliament, this treatise was a recipe for anarchy, and as such they had Williams book burned in public. This act fueled the outrage of a majority in the ranks of the Army and caused it not only to burn with anger towards the king, but also the parliament that it fought for. All of this led to the New Model Army ultimately rising up to remove all powers that sought to undermine their greatest desire, total and complete tolerance of religious conviction. A new English Republic was established with Cromwell being set up as Lord Protector. In 1650 the Rump’s Toleration Act was passed, which abolished any legal requirement to attend one’s parish church. This was a period of unparalleled and intoxicated freedom in English history for the experimentation of religion. Yet, such ideals would not remain just in England.

Williams, brought his ideals back to the Americas. Williams had eventually obtained a royal charter for the colony, which later became the State of Rhode Island, based on this mandate:

No person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be anywise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion … but that all persons may … enjoy their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concernments.[2]

What is most significant about the royal charter is that it acknowledges at the foundation of Rhode Island’s government the principle of  religious liberty . This principle was central to the establishment of the American government and was later expressed in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

Another incredible idea that Williams had established in his charter was that of  republicanism (democratic governments made up of representatives elected by its citizens). Neither republicanism, nor religious liberty can be found in any of the charters of the other colonies in which the church and state were united. It is therefore easy to determine the original source of those principles which have protected our religious freedom and made America, in spite of its failures in the past, to over time become a refuge for the oppressed of every land.



[1] Roger Williams, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience, London: 1644, 11-12.
[2] Poore, B. P., compiler, under an order of the United States Senate: “Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the United States,” (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1877) Part II, p. 1596-1597.

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